The Puzzle of the Bard

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William Shakespeare is a name we all know well. We’ve studied his works in school, used words and phrases he coined or popularized, and we’ve seen numerous films, TV shows, and other adaptations inspired by his writing.

But for more than two centuries, there has been a great deal of debate over whether the man known as William Shakespeare actually wrote all of the brilliant works for which he is acclaimed.

There are whole societies dedicated to either rooting out the truth or proffering their candidate for who really wrote the works of Shakespeare. Many names are bandied about, including a who’s who of luminaries at the time, like Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, Anne Hathaway, Sir Walter Raleigh, and perhaps most ardently, Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford.

[Image courtesy of The Truth About Shakespeare.]

Now, granted, there’s plenty to suggest Shakespeare collaborated with other writers on some of his works, but we’re not talking about collaboration here. We’re talking about ghostwriting some of the most famous works in human history.

But, you may be asking, other than a shared love of wordplay, what does the Shakespearean authorship question have to do with puzzles?

I’m glad you asked.

Over the years, several theorists have reported finding secret codes or ciphers in the text of Shakespeare’s works which hinted toward the true author.

Samuel Morse, a man who knows one or two things about codes, discussed how Sir Francis Bacon had created such codes, probably as part of his spy work, perhaps even going so far as to create an encrypted signature of sorts that appears in multiple Shakespeare works.

According to a BBC America article on the subject:

One scholar at the time went so far as to produce an enormous “cipher wheel” composed of a 1000-foot piece of cloth that contained the texts of Shakespeare and others for easy comparison and decryption. He claimed that by deciphering codes, he’d discovered the location of a box, buried under the Wye River, that contained documents that would prove Sir Francis’s authorship. But a dredging of the area came up with nothing.

[Orville Ward Owen’s cipher wheel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.]

Now, there’s little doubt that Bacon was a code master, but there’s equally little evidence that he wrote the works of Shakespeare.

Of course, if there are codes in those works, perhaps Shakespeare placed them there himself.

According to a theory by scholar Clare Asquith, Countess of Oxford and Asquith, Shakespeare’s careful and curious word choices were intended to foment subversive political messages and advance his own agenda of strong Catholic beliefs.

Constancy in love was Shakespeare’s way of alluding to the importance of a true faith in the ‘old religion’, she says. More specifically, his puns and metaphors often circled around certain key phrases. For instance, to be ‘sunburned’ or ‘tanned’, as are his heroines Viola, Imogen and Portia, was to be close to God and so understood as a true Catholic.

[Image courtesy of Amazon.com.]

It’s amazing that we know so little about someone so influential. And it’s only natural that we try to fill in the blanks with our own theorists, be they explanations of Shakespeare’s impressive knowledge or possibilities of alternative authorship.

The man himself is a puzzle, and that is irresistible to some, myself included. Are Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the bard one and the same?

As it turns out, that question might finally have an answer, thanks to the sleuthing of Dr. Heather Wolfe of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

The story begins with Shakespeare’s father:

John Shakespeare, from Stratford-upon-Avon, was ambitious to rise in the world. He was certainly not the first Englishman keen to put his origins as a provincial tradesman behind him. Among his contemporaries in Stratford, he was a figure of fun for his social climbing. English class snobbery has a long pedigree.

His son, who would continue the quest for official recognition after his father’s death, also attracted metropolitan disdain as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers”. In 1601, after his father’s death, Shakespeare the upstart returned to the college of arms to renew the family application for a coat of arms.

He had made a small fortune in the theatre, and was buying property in and around Stratford. Now he set out to consolidate his reputation as a “Gentleman”. Under the rules that governed life at the court of Elizabeth I, only the Queen’s heralds could grant this wish.

[Image courtesy of The Shakespeare Blog.]

And it’s this application for a family coat of arms that provides the connective tissue between the man and the bard. “They point to someone actively involved in defining and defending his legacy in 1602, shortly after his father’s death,” according to Wolfe.

But whether there are codes lurking in the Bard’s works or not, the mystery of the man himself might be the greatest puzzle of all.


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Cracking the GCHQ Christmas Card!

As you may recall, my fellow puzzlers and PuzzleNationers, a few months ago, a government organization in England called the GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — released a puzzly Christmas card designed to tax even the savviest puzzle solvers.

They’ve finally released the answers to this mind-blowing series of puzzles, and I’d like to go over some of them with you. Partly to marvel at the puzzle wizardry necessary to solve this challenging holiday gift, and partly to gloat about the parts I managed to solve.

So let’s get to it!


Part 1 was a logic art puzzle where you have to deduce where to place black squares on an open grid in order to form a picture.

Each column and row has a series of numbers in it. These numbers represent runs of black squares in a row, so a 1 means there’s one black square followed by a blank square on either side and a 7 means 7 black squares together with a blank square on either side.

This is mostly a deduction puzzle — figuring out how to place all the strings of black squares with white spaces between them within the space allotted — but no image immediately emerged, which was frustrating. Once the three corner squares started to form though, I realized the answer was a QR code, and the puzzle started to come together nicely.


Part 2 was a series of six multiple-choice brain teasers. I’ll give you the first three questions, along with answers.

Q1. Which of these is not the odd one out?

A. STARLET
B. SONNET
C. SAFFRON
D. SHALLOT
E. TORRENT
F. SUGGEST

Now, if you stare at a list of words long enough, you can form your own patterns easily. Here’s the rationale the GCHQ used to eliminate the odd ones out:

STARLET is an odd one out because it does not contain a double letter.
SONNET is an odd one out because it has 6 letters rather than 7.
SAFFRON is an odd one out because it ends in N rather than T.
TORRENT is an odd one out because it starts with T rather than S.
SUGGEST is an odd one out because it is a verb rather than a noun.

SHALLOT is our answer.

Q2. What comes after GREEN, RED, BROWN, RED, BLUE, -, YELLOW, PINK?
A. RED
B. YELLOW
C. GREEN
D. BROWN
E. BLUE
F. PINK

After playing around with some associative patterns for a while, I realized that somehow these colors must equate to numbers. First I tried word lengths, but 5-3-5-3-4-___-6-4 didn’t make any sense to me. But then, it hit me: another time where colors and numbers mix.

Pool balls. Of course, the colors and numbers didn’t match, because this is a British puzzle, and they don’t play pool, they play snooker.

So the colored balls in snooker become the numbers 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, -, 2, 6. The numbers of Pi. And now the blank makes sense, because Pi reads 3.1415926, and there’s no 9 ball in snooker.

So the next number in the chain is 5, and 5 is the color BLUE.

Q3. Which is the odd one out?
A. MATURE
B. LOVE
C. WILDE
D. BUCKET
E. BECKHAM
F. SHAKA

This one came pretty quickly to me, as the names Oscar Wilde and Charlie Bucket leapt out. And if you follow the phonetic alphabet, you also get Victor Mature, Romeo Beckham, and Shaka Zulu. (I didn’t get Mike Love, however.)

Since Shaka Zulu was the only one where the phonetic alphabet word was the surname, not the first name, SHAKA is the odd one out.

(The other three questions included an encryption puzzle, a number pattern (or progressions puzzle), and a single-letter puzzle.)

Granted, since you could retake this part as many times as you wanted, you could luck your way through or brute force the game by trying every permutation. But managing to solve most of them made this part go much faster.


Part 3 consisted of word puzzles, and was easily my favorite section, because it played to some strengths of mine.

A. Complete the sequence:

Buck, Cod, Dahlia, Rook, Cuckoo, Rail, Haddock, ?

This sequence is a palindrome, so the missing word is CUB.

B. Sum:

pest + √(unfixed – riots) = ?

This one is a little more involved. To complete the formula, you need to figure out what numbers the words represent. And each word is an anagram of a French number. Which gives you:

sept + √(dix-neuf – trois) = ?

Dix-neuf is nineteen and trois is three, so that’s sixteen beneath a square root sign, which equals four. And sept (seven) plus four is eleven.

The French word for eleven is onze, and ZONE is the only anagram word that fits.

C. Samuel says: if agony is the opposite of denial, and witty is the opposite of tepid, then what is the opposite of smart?

This is a terrific brain teaser, because at first blush, it reads like nonsense, until suddenly it clicks. Samuel is Samuel Morse, so you need to use Morse Code to solve this one. I translated “agony” and tried reversing the pattern of dots and dashes, but that didn’t work.

As it turns out, you need to swap the dots and dashes, and that’s what makes “denial” read out. This also worked with “witty” and “tepid,” so when I tried it with “smart,” the opposite was OFTEN.

D. The answers to the following cryptic crossword clues are all words of the same length. We have provided the first four clues only. What is the seventh and last answer?

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song
2. It receives a worker and returns a queen
3. Try and sing medley of violin parts
4. Fit for capture
5.
6.
7. ?

Now, I’m not a strong cryptic crossword solver, so this part took FOREVER. Let’s work through it one clue at a time.

1. Withdraw as sailors hold festive sing-song

The word WASSAIL both reads out in “withdraw as sailors hold” and means “festive sing-song.”

2. It receives a worker and returns a queen

The word ANTENNA both “receives” and is formed by “a worker” (ANT) and “returns a queen” (ANNE, reading backward).

3. Try and sing medley of violin parts

The word STRINGY is both an anagram of “try” and “sing” and a violin part (STRING).

4. Fit for capture

The word SEIZURE means both “fit” and “capture.”

Those four answers read out like this:

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE

And with three more answers to go, it seemed only natural that three more seven-letter answers were forthcoming. Plus, when you read the words spelling out downward, you notice that the first four letters of WASSAIL, ANTENNA, STRINGY, and SEIZURE were spelling out.

If you follow that thought, you end up with the start of a 7×7 word square:

 WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU___
INGR___
LAYE___

And the only seven-letter word starting with INGR that I could think of was INGRATE.

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU_A_
INGRATE
LAYE_E_

And if the last word is LAYERED…

WASSAIL
ANTENNA
STRINGY
SEIZURE
ANNU_AR
INGRATE
LAYERED

Then the missing word must be ANNULAR. The original question asked for the last word though, so our answer is LAYERED.


This brings us to Part 4, Number Puzzles, where I must confess that I finally tapped out, because I could only figure out the first of the three progressions involved.

Fill in the missing numbers.

A. 2, 4, 8, 1, 3, 6, 18, 26, ?, 12, 24, 49, 89, 134, 378, 656, 117, 224, 548, 1456, 2912, 4934, 8868, 1771, 3543, …

B. -101250000, -1728000, -4900, 360, 675, 200, ?, …

C. 321, 444, 675, 680, 370, 268, 949, 206, 851, ?, …

In the first one, you’re simply multiplying by 2 as you go.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

But you begin to exclude every other number as you move into double-digits, triple-digits, quadruple-digits, and beyond.

2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, 8192, 16384, 32768, 65536, 131072, 262144, and so on.

So the answer, 512, becomes the real answer, 52.

But, as I said, I couldn’t crack the other two, and I’m already exhausted just running through these four sections!

And, based on the answers they released recently, Part 5 only got more mindbending from there.

As a matter of fact, not a single entrant managed to get every answer in Part 5 correct. Prizes were awarded to the three people who came closest however, and it turns out a staggering 30,000+ people made it to Part 5. Color me impressed!

This was, without a doubt, the most challenging puzzle suite I have ever seen, and I offer heartfelt kudos to anyone in the PuzzleNation Blog readership who even attempted it!

You’re welcome to try it out for yourself, though. I highly recommend using this link from The Telegraph, which allows you to skip to the next part if you get stumped.


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A puzzly British Christmas card!

One government agency in England celebrates Christmas a little bit differently than most.

The GCHQ — Government Communications Headquarters — provides security and intelligence services for the British government. Back when they were known as GC&CS — Government Code and Cypher School — they were responsible for funding the Bletchley Park successes cracking the German “Enigma” code during World War II.

And for Christmas this year, they’ve released a puzzly Christmas card that’s sure to challenge even the staunchest puzzlers.

Step 1 of the puzzle is a logic art puzzle where you have to deduce where to place black squares on an open grid in order to form a picture.

Each column and row has a series of numbers in it. These numbers represent runs of black squares in a row, so a 1 means there’s one black square followed by a blank square on either side and a 7 means 7 black squares together with a blank square on either side.

Once you’ve solved this puzzle, you can use it to unlock the next puzzle in the chain.

From an article on GCHQ.gov.uk:

Once all stages have been unlocked and completed successfully, players are invited to submit their answer via a given GCHQ email address by 31 January 2016. The winner will then be drawn from all the successful entries and notified soon after.

Players are invited to make a donation to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, if they have enjoyed the puzzle.

This is one majorly challenging Christmas card. After you’ve conquered the logic art puzzle, you’ll confront brain teasers, palindromes, pattern-matching, deduction, number progressions, codebreaking, cryptic crossword-style cluing, and more.

I would highly recommend teaming up with another puzzle-minded friend (or more) and trying your luck. Let us know how far you get! (And you can hit up this article from the Telegraph for aid as well.)


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A puzzle hunt 100 years in the making!

Riddles, codebreaking, and scavenger hunts are three of my favorite puzzly topics. I’ve covered each extensively in blog posts previously, exploring not only the history and ever-changing nature of puzzles, but how deeply ingrained puzzle-solving is in our culture, past and present.

Tuesday’s post was about a fairly simple encoded puzzle I found lurking inside a short story. That simplicity, that accessibility is part of why I wrote about it.

For you see, fellow puzzlers, today’s post is not about a simple puzzle. Today’s post covers all three of the topics above — riddles, codebreaking, and scavenger hunts — in a sprawling, mindboggling story about a globe-spanning mystery that gamers and puzzlers joined forces to unravel.

It all started in April 2012 with the release of a video game called Trials Evolution, created by the game designers at Redlynx.

trials_evo_frontpage_large

Trials Evolution is a motorcycle racing game that incorporates real-world physics into the gameplay, challenging players to complete obstacle-filled courses as fast as possible.

Now, this might not seem like the type of game to conceal a fiendish riddle, but players were actually expecting a challenging puzzle to be hiding within the game, because Trials HD, a previous installment of the series, featured a riddle to solve that helped build the Trials gaming community.

So expectations were high for whatever riddle was lurking inside Trials Evolution. And it did not disappoint.

First, players had to locate a series of wooden planks throughout the game, planks that featured encrypted writing on them. Once assembled and decrypted, the planks featured instructions for a special maneuver for players to perform in the game while a particular piece of music played.

Successfully completing this task earned the player a bonus song, which included lyrics suggesting players transform the song into a visual form. Cagey players realized this meant running a spectral analysis on the song — a visual graph of sound or energy — which revealed a hidden message in Morse Code.

That message led to a website where the images below started appearing daily, one by one.

1293940361449154218

(It’s worth noting that these images started appearing in late 2013, more than a year after the game was released!)

Each image references a particular scientist. Once all twenty-six images were revealed, the indefatigable players had a visual alphabet to work with.

So when a message appeared using the images instead of letters, players cracked that code as well.

Still with me?

That code led to four sets of coordinates. Real world coordinates across the world! This riddle was only getting more complex the deeper players went!

globe_detailmap2

Something awaited intrepid players in San Francisco, California; Bath, England; Helsinki, Finland; and Sydney, Australia. In each location, players uncovered small chests, each containing a key and a metal plaque with the message “It seemed like forever ago” on it. (The Helsinki location also featured French documents, supposedly from 300 years ago, as well as an antique pocket watch.)

So, what do the keys open? What does it all mean?

Well, there was one last message. On the other side of the metal plaque included in each chest, there was a message:

Midday in Year 2113.
1st Sat in Aug
One of Five keys will open the box
Underneath the Eiffel Tower

That’s right. This riddle can only be unraveled nearly a century from now! This puzzle has gone from a hidden bonus feature in a video game to actual scavenger hunting in the real world, and is now becoming a multigenerational quest.

mauricemeyer

Take a moment and ponder that. It blows my mind to think about a puzzle that took dozens of people to conquer and will now become a story told to friends and sons and daughters as golden keys are passed down, all in the hopes of seeing what awaits us underneath the Eiffel Tower on a particular day in August in 2113.

And it all started with a motorcycle racing video game.

[For more details on the Trials Evolution riddle, check out this thorough write-up on Kotaku.]

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Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman…

With subscriptions to puzzle magazines like Will Shortz’s WordPlay and GAMES Magazine, as well as puzzle-by-mail services like The Uptown Puzzle Club and The Crosswords Club, there are plenty of ways to get puzzles by mail.

But one particular puzzler in the UK has put an intriguing twist on the idea of puzzles-by-mail: he’s challenged the carriers of the Royal Mail postal service to solve puzzles in order to deliver his mail.

A graphic designer by trade, James Addison was impressed by the diligence of the postmen of the Royal Mail, and he playfully decided to test their mettle with different challenges, including maps, word searches, pictograms, and other befuddling methods to conceal the intended destination of the letter.

From an article on The Telegraph website:

Although he enjoys solving puzzles himself, he said his hobby was fuelled by a desire partly to test the Royal Mail’s ingenuity and partly to honour old-fashioned letter-writing, following his mother’s advice that a handwritten thank-you note showed you had made an effort.

Well, Mr. Addison is certainly taking his mother’s words to heart. And it seems the postmen of the Royal Mail quite enjoy the spirited challenges his letters offer.

[To try your hand at solving some of Jim’s letters, including those pictured in this post, click here!]

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PuzzleNation Book Reviews: The Code Busters Club, Case #3

Welcome to the ninth installment of PuzzleNation Book Reviews!

All of the books discussed and/or reviewed in PNBR articles are either directly or indirectly related to the world of puzzling, and hopefully you’ll find something to tickle your literary fancy in this entry or the entries to come.

Let’s get started!

Our book review post this time around features Penny Warner’s third Code Busters Club novel, The Mystery of the Pirate’s Treasure.

I regularly get questions from fellow puzzlers who are looking for fun ways to get their kids into math, science, history, and other subjects through the media of board games or puzzles. Sadly, I don’t always have the picture-perfect recommendation for them prepped and ready in my back pocket, gift-wrapped for delivery.

That’s what makes stumbling upon a book tailor-made for encouraging both reading AND a love of puzzles such a delight. And if you’re looking for a gateway book for scavenger hunts or coded puzzles, look no further than The Code Busters Club series.

When there’s a puzzle to be unraveled or a code to be cracked, you can count on the crafty quartet known as the Code Busters. Friends Cody Jones, Quinn Kee, Luke LaVeau, and M.E. Esperanto are ready at a moment’s notice to put their codecracking skills to the test, and a field trip to Carmel Mission might be the perfect opportunity. There are some shifty characters lurking about, but with rumors of a pirate’s treasure hidden nearby, what else would you expect? Can the Code Busters make history and solve the riddle of de Bouchard’s gold?

If you’re looking for a fun way to introduce coded puzzles to younger readers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a book that employs as many different styles of coding as The Mystery of the Pirate’s Treasure. Warner has clearly done her research, employing everything from Morse code and semaphore to symbols, skip codes, Caesar ciphers, alphanumerics, and more.

[A quick interlude for coded-puzzle newbies:

  • A skip code is a message wherein you skip certain words in order to spell out a hidden message concealed within a larger one.
  • A Caesar cipher, also known as a shift cipher, works by shifting the alphabet a predetermined number of letters. For instance, if you shift the alphabet 5 letters, A becomes F, B becomes G, etc.
  • An alphanumeric code (in its simplest form) replaces the letters in words with their corresponding digits on a telephone keypad. So an A, B, or C becomes 2 while G, H, or I becomes 4.

End informational interlude.]

As a puzzler with plenty of experience with coded puzzles and cryptography, I was impressed by the breadth of codes and secret messages Warner had snuck into book that’s less than 200 pages, including illustrations and a sizable typeface.

The story itself is a bit threadbare, but considering the brisk storytelling pace and the sheer number of puzzles included, it’s easy to forgive the author for providing just enough impetus to get the Code Busters (and the reader) from one puzzle to the next. After all, this is a book about friends solving puzzles, and the puzzles are dynamite introductory-level puzzles for young readers.

I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for further Code Busters Club adventures.

[To check out all of our PuzzleNation Book Review posts, click here!]

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